Winter Weather Preparedness

Winter Weather Preparedness

While the danger from winter weather varies across the country, nearly all Americans, regardless of where they live, are likely to face some type of severe winter weather at some point in their lives. Winter storms can range from a moderate snow over a few hours to a blizzard with blinding, wind-driven snow that lasts for several days. Many winter storms are accompanied by dangerously low temperatures and sometimes by strong winds, icing, sleet and freezing rain.

One of the primary concerns is the winter weather's ability to knock out heat, power and communications services to your home or office, sometimes for days at a time. Heavy snowfall and extreme cold can immobilize an entire region.

The National Weather Service refers to winter storms as the "Deceptive Killers" because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm. Instead, people die in traffic accidents on icy roads and of hypothermia from prolonged exposure to cold. It is important to be prepared for winter weather before it strikes.

Watches and Warnings

Winter Storm Watch

This product is issued by the National Weather Service when there is a potential for heavy snow or significant ice accumulations, usually at least 24 to 36 hours in advance. The criteria for this watch can vary from place to place.

Winter Storm Warning

This product is issued by the National Weather Service when a winter storm is producing or is forecast to produce heavy snow or significant ice accumulations. The criteria for this warning can vary from place to place.

Blizzard Warning

Issued for winter storms with sustained or frequent winds of 35 mph or higher with considerable falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibility to 1/4 of a mile or less. These conditions are expected to prevail for a minimum of 3 hours.

Winter Storms Home Preparedness Checklist

  • Before winter approaches, add the following supplies to your emergency kit:
    • Rock salt or more environmentally safe products to melt ice on walkways
    • Sand to improve traction
    • Snow shovels and other snow removal equipment
    • Sufficient heating fuel, like dry, seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove
    • Adequate clothing and blankets to keep you warm
  • Make a family emergency plan — Your family may not be together when disaster strikes, so it is important to know how you will contact one another, how you will get back together and what you will do in case of an emergency
  • Listen to a NOAA Weather Radio or other local news channels for critical information from the National Weather Service (NWS) and be alert to changing weather conditions
  • Minimize travel, but keep a disaster supplies kit in your vehicle
  • Bring pets/companion animals inside during winter weather
  • Move other animals or livestock to sheltered areas with non-frozen drinking water

During the Winter Storm

  • Stay indoors during the storm
  • Walk carefully on snowy, icy walkways
  • Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow; overexertion can bring on a heart attack — a major cause of death in the winter
  • If you must shovel snow, stretch before going outside
  • Keep dry and change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat (wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly)
  • Watch for signs of frostbite: loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes and the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately
  • Watch for signs of hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected, get the victim to a warm location, remove wet clothing, warm the center of the body first and give warm, non-alcoholic beverages if the victim is conscious. Get medical help as soon as possible
  • Drive only if it is absolutely necessary. If you must drive: travel in the day, don't travel alone, keep others informed of your schedule, stay on main roads and avoid back road shortcuts
  • Let someone know your destination, your route and when you expect to arrive. If your car gets stuck along the way, help can be sent along your predetermined route
  • If the pipes freeze, remove any insulation or layers of newspapers and wrap pipes in rags. Completely open all faucets and pour hot water over the pipes, starting where they were most exposed to the cold (or where the cold was most likely to penetrate)
  • Maintain ventilation when using kerosene heaters to avoid build-up of toxic fumes
  • Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects
  • Conserve fuel, if necessary, by keeping your residence cooler than normal. Temporarily close off heat to some rooms
  • If you will be going away during cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 55°F

Winterize Your Home

Winter storms can range from a brief period of extreme cold temperatures, to days of snow, blowing wind and white-out conditions. Preparing in advance helps you tackle winter weather before it even begins. Two of the biggest safety issues as the winter season approaches is knowing how to deal with power outages in cold weather and understanding how to drive (or when not to drive) in snowy conditions. 

Get Your Home Winter Ready

  • Winterize your home to extend the life of your fuel supply by insulating walls and attics, caulking and weather-stripping doors and windows, and installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic
  • Winterize your house, barn, shed or any other structure that may provide shelter for your family, neighbors, livestock or equipment
  • Clear rain gutters; repair roof leaks and cut away tree branches that could fall on a house or other structure during a storm
  • Maintain heating equipment and chimneys by having them cleaned and inspected every year
  • Insulate pipes with insulation or newspapers and plastic and allow faucets to drip a little during cold weather to avoid freezing; Running water, even at a trickle, helps prevent pipes from freezing
  • All fuel-burning equipment should be vented to the outside and kept clear
  • Keep fire extinguishers on hand and make sure everyone in your house knows how to use them
  • Learn how to shut off water valves (in case a pipe bursts)
  • Insulate your home by installing storm windows or covering windows with plastic from the inside to keep cold air out
  • Hire a contractor to check the structural ability of the roof to sustain unusually heavy weight from the accumulation of snow or water, if drains on flat roofs do not work

Carbon Monoxide Safety

  • Never use a generator, grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside a home, garage, basement, crawlspace or any partially enclosed area. Locate unit away from doors, windows and vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come indoors
  • The primary hazards to avoid when using alternate sources for electricity, heating or cooking are carbon monoxide poisoning, electric shock and fire
  • Install carbon monoxide alarms in central locations on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas to provide early warning of accumulating carbon monoxide
  • If the carbon monoxide alarm sounds, move quickly to a fresh air location outdoors or by an open window or door
  • Call for help from the fresh air location and remain there until emergency personnel arrive to assist you

Winter Driving Preparedness

The first step to driving carefully during the winter season is to always be aware of changing weather conditions from your starting location to your destination. Check out our Road Trip Planner, a helpful tool that provides weather information for your drive, including forecasted conditions and severe alerts along the road.

Car Maintenance

Make sure to prepare your vehicle before the winter season begins. The following handy steps will help you ensure that your vehicle is safe to drive during winter weather:

  1. Check your brakes, transmission and tires
  2. Check that your battery and ignition system is in top condition and that battery terminals are clean
  3. Check radiator coolant and sturdiness of hoses and belts
  4. Check your anti-freeze and thermostat to avoid freezing
  5. Check your windshield wipers and deicing washer fluid
  6. Check your headlights, tail and brake lights, blinkers and emergency flasher
  7. Check your exhaust system, heater and defroster
  8. Check fuel and air filters
  9. Check your oil and power steering fluids
  10. Properly lubricate door locks that may be prone to freezing

Driving Safety

  • Before beginning your trip, check the current road conditions and weather forecast. For statewide highway information 24 hours a day checkout your state's Department of Transportation
  • Keep your car's windows, mirrors and lights clear of snow and ice
  • Buckle up
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to make it to your destination
  • Be aware of sleet and freezing rain
  • Be aware of potentially icy areas
  • Brake early and slowly and avoid slamming on the brakes
  • Keep a safe distance of at least five seconds behind other vehicles and trucks that are plowing the road
  • When driving on ice and snow, do not use cruise control and avoid abrupt steering maneuvers
  • When merging into traffic, take it slow — Sudden movements can cause your vehicle to slide
  • Don't pass a snowplow or spreader unless it is absolutely necessary — treat these as you would emergency response vehicles
  • Keep an emergency winter driving kit in your car
  • Maintain at least a half tank of gas during the winter season. This is good for emergency preparedness and it keeps the fuel line from freezing.
  • Most importantly, drive smart!

Winter Driving Safety Kit

Blankets or a sleeping bag

Flashlight or battery-powered lantern with extra batteries

Battery-powered radio

Jumper or booster cables

Emergency flares

Matches

Extra clothing, such as boots, hats and gloves or mittens

A shovel and rope

Tow chain

Bottled water or juice and nonperishable high-energy foods

First-aid kit with necessary medications and a pocket knife

Road salt, sand or non-clumping cat litter for tire traction

Cell phone and car charger

Ice scraper and snow brush or small broom

Spare tire, tire repair kit and pump

Deicing Agents

The Department of Transportation applies several materials to roads to assist with snow removal or to improve vehicle traction. While these materials may vary from state to state, they generally include:

Sodium Chloride: For snow and ice control, sodium chloride ("Salt") is the most plentiful and inexpensive de-icer. When salt is applied, it creates brine, which keeps snow and ice from bonding to the pavement. Salt is effective to temperatures of about 27°F and above.
Calcium Chloride: A more expensive de-icing chemical, calcium chloride is most often mixed with salt to provide some moisture so the chemical reaction that causes melting can take place. This chemical is used when temperatures fall into the low 20s because at those temperatures, moisture isn't present to help salt start the melting process. In liquid form, calcium chloride provides quicker action.
Abrasives: Small gravel or sand that can't melt snow or ice, such as non-clumping cat litter. Often, abrasives are mixed with salt to provide additional traction and lessen the cost of applying chemicals. Abrasives can be used on roads generally not treated with chemicals.

*Note: De-icing chemicals such as sodium chloride and calcium chloride are very detrimental to gravel-surfaced and surface-treated roads. Chemicals are used very sparingly on these types of roads and only when absolutely necessary.

 

Prepare For the Extreme

By the time severe weather hits, it's already too late. Disaster preparedness is about having an established safety plan. Whether it's preparedness for floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, or fires, the key to survival in disasters is planning. Use our preparedness section to stay informed, make a plan, and most importantly—remain safe in an emergency.